EARLY last September, at the close of a summer with an average amount of rainfall, Tropical Storm Norman dumped a blizzard on California's Sierra Nevada. Its toll next day: four people dead, 17 missing. Too easily I could have been a fifth or an 18th. As it was, I watched two people dying.
Ironically, like most backpackers, I'd set out 26 days before seeking the true wilderness experience. It eluded me. After 200 miles, after carrying more than half my weight, after beginning alone, all I knew was a lot of pain, too many people and a scenery spectacular in its extremes but too barren to be beautiful.
The trail I was on, the John Muir Trail, is a killer. It contains more high passes than any other established trail in the continental U.S. At times it seems nothing more than up and down and up again. Twelve-thousand-foot passes, 13,000-foot passes and finally, at the end, Trail Crest and Mt. Whitney at 14,000-plus feet. Only after that summit are there 10 easy miles which lead down and out, back to the showers, the cooked food and the bed I looked forward to on the second-to-last day of the hike.
But the end would mean more than just a return to "civilization." It would conclude an accomplishment, something that, as one man said, I "could sit on for a long time," a kind of personal success. When I began I had never before backpacked more than three days at a stretch. Likewise, I had never been as strong physically, or as comfortable with the equipment strapped on my back or as confident in the ability of one part of my mind to suppress the fear and panic that could crop up in its other parts.
However, neither strength nor equipment nor mind control were necessary the next day, the day I should have topped Whitney and finished the hike. Instead there was disappointment all day. It rained hard and heavy, having started the day before in intermittent bursts, the first rain I'd seen the whole trip.
I sat in the ranger station, several miles from the base of the mountain, along with the ranger, a couple I had hiked with for two days, and four or five others who had pressured the ranger into letting them escape the rain and dry off.
The couple had convinced me not to hike in the rain, to wait till the next day when, perhaps, it would be beautiful again. It was easy to acquiesce. After 210 miles I wanted to climb to the top of the highest U.S. peak outside Alaska and take in the view, a pointless effort in the rain which hid the mountain from view and the view from the mountain.
But after a while it seemed equally pointless to sit all day, on a chair, in a building, with a ranger who seemed not to care. It was the first day my legs hadn't pumped more than six miles and the fact I was using furniture in a solid structure seemed sacrilegious, a contradiction of the purpose behind the trek. The longer I sat, the less I liked it; rain or shine, I knew I would hike out the next day.
It was rain: cold, clammy, pervading rain that leaked through the tent and soaked the sleeping bag. The sky boded more ill than good. There was no thunder, though, which left me no excuses. Moreover, I had specifically asked the ranger the night before what the streams would be like, reminding him I would be making the hike alone. The authority, he said: "No problem."
It took six people an hour to cross what once had been a small but forceful stream, since turned into a bank-leaping, hip-high rush of water just two miles from the station. Adrian and Johnnie, two hikers I had met by chance the day before, were leaving the ranger station as I set off. They seemed anxious to get going. I didn't want to keep them waiting. I also did not want to hike up the path alone, given the conditions, so I skipped breakfast, tying a plastic bag with chocolate and crackers to my waist in case I needed it quickly.
As soon as I had convinced Johnnie, who was tall and dressed in waterproof blue Goretex, and Adrian, stockier and wearing shorts, that I could keep up with them, we set off. We didn't do much talking, hiking quickly instead until we came to the stream. After the first few futile attempts at crossing it, we saw three other backpackers who were also stuck. Forty-five minutes passed with neither group making any progress. Part of the reason it took us so long was that there was no concerted effort; rather, there was some tension in the air. I could see the two American servicemen, who were stationed in Germany, and their German friend in the Sierra for vacation asking themselves what a girl was doing in the mountains, let alone a girl with two men. At last Johnnie asked them to help us throw a fallen lodgepole pine across the stream; with success, tensions eased.
One of the servicemen, the oldest and the most experienced of the three, crossed first.Then Adrian, then the second serviceman, Mike, young and sporting an earring in his ear. Mike didn't make it across dry; I knew I wouldn't either. After falling in the river earlier in the trip, I was petrified of crossing anything even knee-deep. Sure enough, despite Johnnie's encouragement, I couldn't keep my balance and got wet to midthigh.
After an hour spent trying to find a dry crossing, both feet and both boots were soaked from having fallen into the stream. Only later did I figure that falling in might have been a good thing. Not only did it force me to keep moving so my feet wouldn't freeze, but I didn't waste time avoiding water anywhere else.
Once we got above the treeline, two or three miles of gradual climb beyond the stream, the light drizzle that had accompanied us from the outset turned into moderately heavy snow. Everyone was hiking at his own pace. I was at least 15 minutes behind Adrian and the same amount of time in front of Johnnie, Mike and the other two. It seemed an interminably long way to the top. I was getting cold, dressed only in shorts, T-shirt, down vest, poncho and wool cap.I hadn't eaten anything that morning and very little the day before, which was beginning to worry me. But worse still, my shoe came untied.
I tried to lace it and couldn't. My fingers wouldn't respond, wouldn't work, could barely bend. I wanted to panic, to sit down and cry. Instead, somehow I balled the lace up and knotted it loosely, then shoved my hands under the pack straps and beneath the vest. I hoped they would warm up; I was losing feeling in my feet. Meanwhile, because my fingers were too cold, I couldn't get the wool clothes out; ironically, I had decided to save them for an emergency or until I reached the end of the trail and needed something dry.
Even at that point it was hard not to stop, give up and wait for Johnnie and the others. The trail, with 10 miles to go beyond the pass and the pass not even in sight, looked hopelessly endless... I started to wonder about hypothermia, which occurs when your body can no longer generate enough heat to maintain its temperature. As the heat drains, so does strength; eventually one loses consciousness.
Every few steps I would run through the symptoms and tell myself that, so far, I was fine. My mind's ability to stifle fear and panic came into play. So did the fact that finally, after climbing 11 passes, I knew how to hike up a vertical climb of 3,200 or so feet in less than four miles without getting tired. It meant plodding along until the pass in the rock itself appeared and then scrambling down the other side.
I expected the other side to be easy. I also expected sun. Somewhere along the line I had been told that it was always sunny, a veritable desert, in the Owens Valley, just the other side of Trail Crest. But expectations are a mistake, especially when they are unreasonable and almost hallucinogenic. At the sign that pointed the summit direction, different and farther than the pass itself, there was still more uphill, while at the apex between uphill and downhill, there was no sun. Nor was there any sign of Adrian in front or Johnnie behind.
There was no comfort anywhere.Even the usual sterility of raw rock, clear water and open sky was obliterated. Only white pervaded, the white blanketing, falling and unformed snow. It gripped me even more than the cold did. It was even more engulfing than overwhelming. I didn't know whether I wanted to go on, or if I should go on or even could. It left me a choice.
I could either hike the two miles to the Mt. Whitney summit where there was an emergency hut with no door, or I could continue towards the end of the trail at Whitney Portal. I continued.
I couldn't turn back. I didn't want to recross the stream, and, according to the ranger, it would be the only one. So all I had to worry about was the cold, which at the time didn't scare me either enough to force me back to the ranger station or to the hut where no one would find me for days. I also took into consideration my food supply; though I had a stove, I only had food for another day and a half. I'd eaten everything else at the ranger station where the ranger, who knew I didn't have much, offered me nothing more than fresh baked bread.
The wind was fiercer on the Owens Valley side. It blew sleet and snow hard enough to turn any exposed flesh a deep redviolet. There was also more snow. Old snow, left over froma harsh winter, was covered with a new and slippery coat. Most of the time I could follow Adrian's footprints, but there came a stretch where they ran out. At the same point, the snow all of a sudden became too steep to walk across.
Perhaps Adrian had fallen. I looked down. He hadn't. But I might. I panicked momentarily because for the first time it finally dawned on me that any moment, with any slip, I could die, that, in fact, I probably would -- especially because there was no safe way to get across the almost perpendicular snowfield. The only thing to do was to sit and slide on the snow and try to halt before hitting the rocks, which reared up like so many menacing bone-breakers. So I did, and it worked. The snow even warmed my legs, which scared me.
I started to wonder if I might die. No one was anywhere in sight. There was only snow and rock, inhospitable and oblivious, almost daring me to make it. My mind broke up into lots of voices:
You can't cry. You have to keep going. What is that wildflower? A sky pilot. Am I shivering? Not yet. I don't have hypothermia. Or at least I don't think I do. But can I be sure? How will I know when I have it? I'm going to die. I can't die. I don't want to. My fingers are frostbitten. I can slip so easily and fall. I can survive if I have to. But what if I'm not supposed to....
It went on forever. Until I saw two people I'd never seen before, with packs and wool hats, three or so turns in the trail below. The turns were three hard "switchbacks," like the five or so immediately before them. The trail was filled with ice-water and slush that reached mid-calf.It took at least five minutes to reach the hikers. During those five minutes fear and worry vanished. People meant help. They would know how much farther to the end, to Whitney Portal. They would be able to put the wool shirt on me and get out wool socks to use as gloves.
But they couldn't.They were in much worse shape than I was in, walking slowly, in scantier clothes, soaked, with ice-caked beards. One was older, smaller and more mentally remote than his more stalwart-looking, slower-paced partner. They needed help badly, and I knew I wasn't strong enough to do what was necessary alone, which scared me. No longer thinking about myself, I tried to follow Adrian's footsteps at a run but kept losing them because the switchbacks had stopped as the ground leveled off for a while. Because the cairns marking the trail were snow-covered and indistinguishable from countless other rock piles, it could go anywhere. I started to panic, tearlessly, soundlessly, then started to yell for Adrian. No answer. Nor was there any sign of Johnnie and the others. Unwillingly, I assumed they'd been wiser and gone to the summit hut, which meant there was no one behind us at all.
I stopped, went back to the two men and told them to follow me.I asked them if they'd seen any tents that they could go to. They slowly answered no, stumbled and followed. Hypothermia. I ran on, hoping they still knew enough to follow my footprints. But I couldn't keep going for long. Again Adrian's footprints ran out, suddenly, for good reason. There was a torrent that had to be crossed, one that looked too strong to ford. The only crossable spot lay at the edge of a 20-foot waterfall. The way over was worse than a tightrope. There were gaps between rocks that had to be jumped. One slip and that would be it -- I would be swept over the edge. Nor was there any way to search for a crossing up-or downstream. There were too many rocks to climb to even attempt to look. Which left the waterfall crossing: impossible.
I stood staring until the two men caught up. Then they stood and stared. I talked to them. They had no food, no dry clothes, no tent and only wet down sleeping bags which sap heat from cold bodies. They were defenseless, and worse, they were succumbing. I didn't think I could cross the stream alone even though it looked as if Adrian had. I wondered if I shouldn't set up the tent, light my stove, get in the sleeping bag and bite through the plastic bag at my belt to get crackers and chocolate and try to save the two men along with myself. But how could I? I still couldn't use my fingers. And if we did manage to last, who would find us?
Finally, it hit me. If I stayed, all three of us would die. They'd already given up and had sat down in the snow. The last stages of hypothermia were setting in, which meant they were already as good as gone. What chance would I have to make it through the night alone? It was likely I would die crossing the stream, but at least I would have tried; I couldn't give up the way they had. At the same time one voice was telling me I was done for, another was telling me I wasn't. So I tried to cross.
I didn't go the logical, dangerous route. Instead I went for the deepest, slowest moving pool, made it to narrower braids of raging water. I then managed to throw my pack on a rock, which proved difficult but no more of an impasse than the stream had been once I realized that the rock was the last obstacle before solid land. The hardest part was over, or so I thought.
The trouble came when I tried to put the pack back on. One arm wouldn't move. No matter how hard I tried and concentrated, it remained immobile. And the other couldn't bend enough to be of any use. Meanwhile I'd started to shiver uncontrollably -- the first symptom of hypothermia. I jumped up and down trying to keep warm. I couldn't laugh, the irony was too bitter -- I'd made it across the stream, but to what end?
With nothing else to do I looked back, wondering if the two men had tried to follow. They hadn't. Instead, they were staring at something else. Johnnie and the others were opposite me on the same bank as the two men, but closer to the water and past them on the trail. Johnnie yelled, wanting to know how I'd gotten across. It took me too long to understand what he was saying, let alone to try to formulate an answer. At the same time I had enough clarity of mind left, slow as it worked, to realize hypothermia was really beginning to grip me. I could see myself fast approaching the state the two men were in, but I knew Johnnie would soon be over to help.
In retrospect I shouldn't have been so certain. Afterward they told me not only were they chiefly concerned with getting themselves down safely, but if the two men weren't ready to help themselves, why should they waste any of their valuable energy on two immobile people? I'm also not sure they realized at the time the two men were hypothermic -- something I couldn't fully explain until we were considerably farther down the trail and I could focus my thoughts. I like to think Johnnie and the hikers with him would have helped me regardless. As it was I can probably be thankful I was alone and a girl and had made it across the stream.
I can remember telling them once they reached me that, if they had to leave me, to be sure and let someone know where I was. I also asked them what would become of the two men. They agreed the men needed help, though I'm not sure how much they cared. I looked back a last time. I knew the men would die. But at that moment I didn't care either. I couldn't.
For the first few minutes after setting off again, I fell every 10 or so steps. My mind couldn't control my legs, let alone summon the strength to boost me back up. Once down I would sway on my knees, occasionally falling flat on my face, until one or another or two of the men hoisted me up. As soon as they put a jacket on me I warmed up, regained some strength and considerably more sense. They wanted to make me drop my pack, as Mike had done. By then I knew enough to say no. We were below the treeline, and although my fingers were still numb and nonfunctioning, there was no more snow, only rain. I knew I would make it the rest of the way.
I wouldn't have. As bad as the stream was where they'd found me, each successive one was worse -- bigger and stronger. At times the only way I got across was by holding hands with two of the four men, never venturing into the middle alone. But by then we'd been through so much nothing could stop us. The streams were no more than a joke to be laughed at, while the eight-hour ordeal that had just passed seemed days distant. We'd even forgotten the two men we'd left in the snow. I remembered them, though, when a U.S. Forest Service Truck passed by. Two of us flagged it down and, caught up in overly dramatic excitement, told the driver and his friend they had to send search parties out immediately, explaining why.
As soon as the search was sufficiently underway, the sheriff drove Johnnie and me back to the police station in Lone Pine where we could spend the night. Adrian had hitched to pick up his car 20 miles away, and we hoped that he would find us in Lone Pine. Eventually Adrian found us, eating in the only restaurant open in that kind of small western town. We stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, again rehashing everything, occasionally wondering about the two men. Not until we'd been asleep for an hour, at 4:30, did the all-night monitor reveal anything. Starting off in code, the voice over the radio told someone to call the coroner's office. One body had been found. They expected to find the other shortly. I heard the message; neither Johnnie nor Adrian did. I felt a fleeting sadness and went back to sleep.
I had known that the two men would die when I left them. In so many words I told them so. Now I knew they were dead. I had felt removed from them when I talked to them. At the same time their fate scared me; my mind couldn't cope. There were too many voices, unconnected, too many trains of thought, all at once. The fact they were in such trouble eventually only made me focus more on my own. They seemed equally removed when I heard for a fact they were dead, which is odd, since I have as clear a picture of them standing there, witless, as I do of anything else I've ever seen. I even tried in detached curiosity to imagine how they were found frozen, and even those thoughts didn't affect me the way I would have expected them to.
I like to think there is a reason for that, that it isn't my mind in its own fashion censoring out something unpleasant which will one day surface to haunt me. I like to think that it has adjusted successfully -- since that day I've often dreamt not unpleasant dreams about blizzards and death -- and has been affected in a positive way, with a shift in my values and view of life.
It is still hard not to wonder why it happened the way it did, why I lived and they died, why I didn't lose my fingers or toes, why I survived unscathed. I'm not sure I don't want to believe there is a meaning behind it all, but questioning what that meaning is can be dangerous. It is frighteningly easy to see how people can come to believe they have a mission in life or are chosen. It is something I have to fight, because I didn't gain what the two men lost.
At the same time their death isn't tormenting me, my life didn't bother them. I know it didn't. Hypothermia, in many respects, is a gracious killer. At the point we left the men, they no longer cared. Soon they wouldn't realize what was happening, let alone remember me and the fact that I could get away while they couldn't. Nor would they remember the only thing I later learned about them -- that they were father and son.